Thursday, November 13, 2008

Losfer Words

Why isn’t instrumental music more popular amongst heavy metal listeners?

The fact that it isn’t should prove that the long-chanted mantra of “only the music matters” is just a load of shit. I suspect that many heavy metal listeners require an image and focus they can identify with in order to properly enjoy listening to music. I believe that many heavy metal listeners secretly want something close to guitar-driven, pop-oriented albums that allow them to listen to music effortlessly. Neither of these are crimes (although I wish the pop-focused listeners – and musicians – would choose another scene to fool around in), but the overall difference between what heavy metal listeners say, and what they actually listen to, would seem to be at odds.

The most divisive element of any heavy metal composition is the singing. The vocal style and the actual words used in the lyrics embellishes every last thing that a band does. Fact: If Metallica was a neo-Nazi band and had released Master of Puppets with nothing changed except for the lyrics being harshly fascist and racist, very few people would know the album. That’s an easy, and extreme, example, granted… but a band’s lyrics are often in close alignment with their overall image, and right now every one of you reading this can think of some ways to creatively insult Rhapsody of Fire, Cannibal Corpse, and Cradle of Filth that would be both accurate and unrelated to any sounds that come out of the speakers.

It would seem that removing that entirely from a band would create a situation where all barriers to enjoyment are removed. Different corners of the metal scene have at different times wished that heavy metal would be afforded the same respect given to jazz and classical composers, citing the similarities of instrumental prowess and compositional complexity. This is perhaps a laughable idea in these days of chart metal and “metal” bands involving kids with emo swoosh haircuts, but in metal’s less popular days these ideas had merit for the scene as a whole.

(It should be noted that metal’s compositional complexity (at its most advanced) is definitely exaggerated in comparison to orchestral music simply for the sake of writing music for a three-to-six piece ensemble versus writing for a full orchestra… and musicians who can improvise, a standard quality in jazz, should probably be considered better than those who can not. But this does not make metal less, it just makes it different.)

I do believe metal’s image and absolutely abrasive nature has been the reason why this didn’t happen in the 90s, which is a shame. I feel that in the eyes of most outside observers, metal’s lyrics and image destroys its musical credibility, while in the hearts of the metal faithful, it is musical credibility that elevates the lyrical concepts and often makes ridiculous themes palatable. Which brings us back to “it’s the music that matters.”

I believe that heavy metal bands themselves have devalued the instrumental. While there have been stunning examples of well-planned instrumental compositions on well-regarded albums (to cut to the chase: “Call of Ktulu” and “Orion”), they are not the norm for heavy metal instrumentals. Far more representative of the early heavy metal instrumental album is a guitarist’s solo album. Commonly regarded as nothing more than “wanking,” the view is that the only value of such albums is for fellow musicians to compare their abilities. It’s nothing to actually listen to, right? “Yeah, he can play, but when is he going to join a band?”

What is amusing is that the very things that cause shred albums to be disregarded are the same things that drive the reputations of “real” bands. You know, the ones with singing. Technical instrumental ability? Check. Speed? Hell yeah, lots of bands, especially in the old days, made reputations based on how fast they played. General sonic chaos and lack of easily digestible hooks, melodies, and chorus? Yeah, some of those guitar player instrumental albums are something else. Perhaps the real problem is the public perception was that those guitar players were complete loudmouth pricks whose entire world was their guitar and their belief that their ability to play it made them superior human beings.

Many “normal” albums contain instrumentals. But they are completely devalued and shown to be nothing more than preparation for the “real” music. Intros, interludes, “instrumentals” that are nothing more than a quick musical idea that hasn’t been fleshed out to reach “composition” status… they are everywhere in metal. This isn’t a bad thing by itself; many examples are completely justifiable and make sense within their context. As a whole, they do send the message that instrumental work, in the context of a heavy metal album anyway, is not the “real” music.

An instrumental album is more difficult to create than a “normal” heavy metal album because of the expectation of vocals. The space in the listener’s head must be filled by some unusual sound. Because of this, many instrumental albums are performed by advanced musicians, and this destroys their credibility with the general metal listener. It’s all good and well to be a great player, but the really good ones don’t just listen to metal, and they don’t just idolize metal musicians. As soon as the words fusion, jazz, progressive, or any sort of talk on theory escape from a musician’s mouth, people tune out. Look what happens to the most capable players in heavy metal. Spiral Architect. Cynic. Atheist. Psychotic Waltz. Watchtower. This entire segment of heavy metal is barely a blip in the overall landscape, and that’s with vocals. Why?

The easy way to answer this is to say, “Heavy metal fans are just stupid and don’t recognize talent when they see it.” But that isn’t true. Does anybody who chooses not to listen to Spiral Architect claim them to be untalented? No. But a perceived lack of “hooks” and “real songs” is definitely a common opinion. And to take away the singing? Instrumental albums are not easy, passive listening experiences. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “Heavy metal fans as a whole have little interest in truly top-level musicianship.” Be good enough, be worshipped. Be too good, be shunned. I think the “most metal listeners want pop music on steroids” theory is a pretty good one.

The impact of the surrounding culture can not be ignored. Popular music in the Western world has been vocally-oriented for the last century. The mass opinion can have an absolutely crushing influence on individual tastes, no matter what one does to counteract it. For all the unoriginality throughout rock and metal’s history, and complaints that people are trying to ride a bandwagon to success, the truth is most of it is done by people who think they are being really cool and expressing their unique selves. Making that separation from groupthink is difficult and often painful – how many iconoclasts and free thinkers lead miserable lives filled with self destructive behavior? – and the rewards for doing so are private and personal. Masses of people are just not going to follow a severe diversion from the usual path.

The instrumental metal album wouldn’t quite have such a burden, as by definition it is staying within the parameters of heavy metal. But what keeps an instrumental band metal? A lot of metal is defined by lyrics, or vocals, or imagery. It’s hard enough to determine if top bands in the genre these days should really be considered metal (Nightwish’s current Eurovision-ready singles, anyone?) without examining the more obscure, and decidedly different bands. If you go by the guidelines of LotFP’s Scum, it might seem like instrumental music is unable to be heavy metal. “Lyrics are the biggest key to discovering whether a particular band, album, or song can be considered heavy metal,” and all that. Of course that’s not the case; heavy metal does have a purely sonic component. “Heavy metal is in the motivation. It isn't in the noise.” It’s obvious when listening to Behold… the Arctopus or Electro Quarterstaff that these bands are metal. Mastery is all about pure thrash; they just have no singer. If bands like Dysrhythmia and Canvas Solaris have outside influences, that’s just natural, but enough to make them non-metal as a whole? That debate can get messy.

In the end, instrumental metal is about one thing: Musical excellence in its purest form. It doesn’t blend into the background, and it doesn’t just hand you anything. It requires, and rewards, close and attentive listening. Maybe that isn’t what the general metal fan wants, but it should be what music listeners demand.


Lord Rocket said...

Speaking of Scum, perhaps a post on if, how and why your views have changed?

Ace Herostratus Warloch said...

An intersting point of view but I think you have overlooked a few things including the most crucial element of all - WHY people listen to music in the first place.

There are obviously many reasons WHY people listen to music but a major one is that most people don't like to be alone even if it is just at the subconscious level. A human voice always gives people a sense of connectedness to some extent or another. The problem with instrumental music is that it often comes across as missing it's soul; once again, maybe not at a conscious level, but as I'm sure you know, the subconscious plays a very large part in a persons day to day decisions and behavior.

As far as lyrics affecting a persons taste, I feel this is largely personal. A lot of people actually have no idea what they're favorite songs are about and don't even care - they just like singing along, which is another factor you overlooked.

With vocals, anyone can join in any song anywhere anytime provided they know the lyrics or at least most of them. Who doesn't like to sing along to their favorite songs while driving to or from work? This is often when people like to sing - when no one else can hear them. People also like to sing along to their favorit songs while working. This helps take their mind off their work and get through the day.

Generally speaking, instrumental music is just too 'alien'for most. They can't connect to it or become one with it like they can with music with a human voice.

This brings me to yet another point. People like music with vocals even if they don't understand what is being said. One example is Rammstein, the band who sing in German. American kids have no idea what the hell they are singing about but still like them anyway. Also, back when I produced a radio show on KRPR 89.9, I would play the French version of Anthrax's cover of "Antisocial" and the German version of Manowar's "Heart of Steel" among other non-english sung songs. People loved this even if they didn't know those languages. Basically what I am saying is that a human voice, no matter what it says or how, allows a soul to soul connection that is impossible to get with instrumental music.

Another thing I would like to bring to attention is that one never hears an instrumental piece of music being referred to as a song. And this is because it's not. For a piece of music to be a song requires a human voice. So in a way you are trying to compare two very different beasts.

For the most part, I feel instrumental music is more often than not better off when used with movies, power point presentations etc... My reasoning: when I was a kid I used to love the music that went with my favorite TV shows so when I found a TV themes audio cassette with the music for these shows I bought it - and boy was I disappointed when I listend to it on my walkman. The music was hardly appealing or interesting without the images, voice overs and anticipation of watching the shows they were associated with.

Of course there are exceptions to this and one of them is Joe Satriani's Surfing With the Alien album. People that don't like instrumental music like this album. The tracks "Surfing with the Alien," "Crushing Day" and "Always With Me, Always With You" are all played on the radio.

So it is possible for instrumentals to successfully make it into people's regular listening habits. As for why, well that could be an article all to itself.

As far as metal's image and lyrics destroying it's musical credibility in the eyes of outside observers: WHO CARES! The mainstream is notoriously shallow and trendy and the people who make up this demographic tend to only like bands their friends like because their friends like them or because the mainstream has brainwashed them into thinking they are cool. Or because they are afraid of being uncool by not liking them.

That said you can often 'convert' these people to a higher awareness of metal if you do it right. Basically you start them out with an intelligent band that is easy for them to sink their ears into such as Shadow Gallery or Kamelot then you slowly work them up to harder stuff such as Grave Digger or Alestorm for example. Don't try to force your personal tastes on them. Instead, try to match their personalities up to whatever metal direction you think might appeal to them. Vocal style will be a primary element in doing this.

You see, vocals and vocal styles add a lot to music besides the aforementioned SOUL. For instance, what would the Scottish pirate metal of Alestorm be without the vocals or lyrics? Would it even be possible to hear their music as "Scottish pirate metal" without the vocals and lyrics?

Not to mention people want to listen to music they can relate to and 'speaks' to them in some way. This is a hard thing to accomplish for an instrumental and is largely why instrumentals will never be as popular; or be the deciding factor whether someone likes a certain band or not.

In the end, I feel that instrumentals are to be appreciated for what they are and should not be unfairly compared to songs. Really, like comparing zebra's to kangaroos.

JimLotFP said...

I sent you a length message on Myspace, but because I put a link in it, they said I'd been phished and made me redo all my shit. argh

Go to the LotFP message board, I've copied your response there for future reply.